Sunday, June 21, 2020

On The MacGuffin and Exponential Growth Economies

Guest Post by Derek Newman-Stille, reprinted from Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

For folks who are unfamiliar with the term, a "MacGuffin" is an object, a device, an event, or a character used in fiction as a plot device to advance the story that is unfolding. We see MacGuffins regularly in speculative fiction, whether it be the Infinity Gauntlet, the Death Star, the One Ring, or the Ark of the Covenant, and these objects serve to push the plot of the story.

However, there is a tendency, particularly in serialized stories, television shows, or movies toward a perceived need to create a bigger and bigger MacGuffin for each book/season/film. Jurassic World even self-consciously referenced this when characters commented on people needing a bigger and more advanced dinosaur to draw them to the park. The idea is that people want to see something bigger and better for the next instalment of their story. They expect characters to "level up" from one story to the next and perceive them as needing a bigger challenge.

I will use Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example:

Season 1 "Big Bad": A vampire

Season 2 "Big Bad": A vampire Buffy loves

Season 3 "Big Bad": A mayor who becomes a demon and a vampire slayer who has turned evil

Season 4 "Big Bad": A demon/cyborg hybrid and a secret military organization

Season 5 "Big Bad": A demon goddess

Season 6 "Big Bad": A witch turned evil

Season 7 "Big Bad": The First Evil

Each season requires something bigger to follow it in order to keep the audience's attention.

This pattern isn't coming from out of nowhere. It reflects a pattern in our society. Our economic system is one that requires constant growth. The perception is that every company needs to keep growing and expanding. Anything that maintains a pattern and doesn't grow is perceived to be a failure. This pattern affects the way we view anything that doesn't continue to grow and expand and we perceive anything that doesn't expand as stagnant and failing. Even in our own lives, we are expected to constantly grow from our jobs and once we find one that doesn't let us continue growing, we perceive it as stagnating us and we need to move to something else. This type of continual expansion isn't feasible. Eventually we reach limits and pushing further can often cause collapse.

The problem with this bigger and bigger MacGuffin per season is that it tends to eventually end. Eventually, it is impossible to get bigger. Eventually the plot devices also become sillier and sillier and lose their impact. The weapon that can kill a person becomes the weapon that can destroy a city, becomes the weapon that can destroy a country, becomes the weapon that can destroy a planet, becomes the... you get the pattern. As the MacGuffins and the characters become more and more powerful, the story loses its human component. It becomes further separated from something the audience can identify with.

Exponential growth isn't possible. Eventually everything starts to reach its boundaries and can't grow further.

Is it possible for us to continue telling a story without requiring a bigger and bigger MacGuffin? Yes, but that pattern would need to be set early on and growth would have to be challenged in the series. Does the narrator need to keep becoming stronger? Or can they develop and change in different ways? Can they have life happen without getting "better"? Does the danger they face need to get stronger, or can it change? Can each threat bring out something new in the narrator?

I don't think a bigger MacGuffin is always the way to keep a story going. It isn't powerful writing to resort to only one aspect of the story changing. There are so many other parts of the story that can change without having one plot device grow exponentially.

—Derek Newman-Stille

Friday, May 22, 2020

Five Rivers Publishing Closes

Lorina Stephens today announced the closing of Five Rivers Publishing.

The press, unlike so many others, did not fail. It was in fact thriving, but family issues related to Lorina taking on eldercare made it impossible for her to continue Five Rivers Publishing. I am sad to see Five Rivers go, but Lorina’s reasons are altruistic and it was the right decision.

Lorina helped many authors launch their careers, and her belief in me made my career as a professional editor possible. It was an honour and a privilege for me to have been associated with Five Rivers for nearly a decade.

I hope that Lorina is able to continue her own writing. Her own books were, in my view, undervalued. I met Lorina (online) when I was one of the few reviewers to find and rave about her first novel, and it was through that contact that I became a beta reader on her second novel, then an Editor at Five Rivers, and then Senior Editor. I watched Lorina put more time into the press than into her own writing, and I know she always paid authors, editors, and artists before she took a dime herself.

She put her time, energy, and money into the press because she believed in the community of writers, editors, and artists that she gathered around her. She made it all work in spite of the turmoil in the publishing industry: Five Rivers survived and thrived when other independent presses around her were wiped out.

My hat is off to her vision, her stubborn survival in difficult times, and her promotion of Canadian voices in literature.

I will always be grateful to Lorina and to Five Rivers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

New Story by Robert: "Fami's Dissertation Defense"

My flash fiction, "Fami’s Dissertation Defense" was published today by RIPPLES IN SPACE and is available free at: The tagline is "Having your AI pass the Turing Test may not be the problem…"

Friday, May 8, 2020

Aurora Nomination

My memorial essay, "Dave Duncan's Legacy" in On Spec magazine #111 has been shortlisted for an Aurora Award, in the "Best Related" category. It is an honour to be nominated, but it is up against five magazines, an anthology, and a podcast, all of which are extremely worthy and all of which represent much more sustained effort than my one essay. So, happy to take being shortlisted as validation of the essay, but the others need their much more substantial contributions to be validated by the win. Good luck to them all, I know I will have difficulty choosing which of them to vote for.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A couple of interesting papers on peer review for our academic clients.

The first lists the sort of problems unprofessional reviewers present for authors

The second is a research paper on how unprofessional reviews harm women and minorities more than CIS white males:

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Worst Fantasy Novel Ever

Interesting video on the worst fantasy novel ever.

Dominic Nobel on the Tragic Story of the Worst Fantasy Novel Ever.

As an editor and writing coach, I often use examples of what not to do in my workshops, but I have always tried to alter the example sufficiently so they are no-longer identifiable even to the author, should they happen to be in the audience; or I make up examples out of whole cloth—it's usually simple enough to come up with a composite that's no one but everyone.

Although now largely out of fashion, I remember when Lionel Fanthorpe novels were considered the worst SF ever written--which, given pulp origins of the genre, is saying a lot. Fanthorpe readings were frequently used as opening inspiration at writers' workshops on the grounds that they were so bad, listeners would be reassured that if Fanthorpe could get published, then surely anyone at the workshop could also. I certainly found Fanthorpe readings inspiring and have a small collection of original Fanthorpe novels which I pick up from time to time to reassure myself that I am, indeed, not the worst author ever.

I feel Fanthorpe's early novels were fair game because he was blissfully unaware that anyone was making fun of his books until he turned up at a Worldcon decades later with an actually pretty good fantasy novel and was flabbergasted that anyone had ever heard his name before. He dismissed those 180 (or so—I don't think even he knows for sure how many there were anymore) novels from the 1950/60s as the contracted processed cheese they were intended to be. His contract was to turn out a book of exactly 148 pages to match the cover he was allotted, and so sometimes his endings were a little drawn out or a little abrupt depending on how far from, or close to, the 148-page limit he was getting. His early works deserve mockery and admiration in equal measure (let's see you grind out a book a week) and he never thought of those books as other than a beginning job he held before going on to become a school teacher, headmaster, church minister, TV personality, and actual author (books on theology, education, and a popular mystery series co-authored with his wife). If you look Fanthorpe up on Wikipedia etc, he turned out to be an uber-cool guy, so, he can take it.

I think Fanthorpe readings have ultimately fallen out of fashion because, with vanity self-publishing, new nominees for worst science fiction or fantasy novel appear hourly. By 'vanity self-publishing', I mean those authors who self-publish their first draft novel without the benefit of editors or beta readers, and who have no interest in grammar, spelling, critical feedback, self-reflection, or getting better. They often knock off a new novel in their self-referential series every few weeks. These people are defined by their ego rather than quality writing or story-telling. Vanity self-publishing has given the general category of self-publishing a bad name. Legitimate self-publishing authors--those who put real effort into multiple drafts, pay for professional editing and professional cover artists and so on--now refer to themselves as 'independently published' to distinguish themselves from the great unedited masses. I believe in self/independent-publishing and much of it is good and some of it is great. But there is no challenge any longer in finding titles that are so terrible they are unintentionally self-satires or to call into question the efficacy of the entire enterprise of modern schooling.

The above video, then, reminds us that critiquing these horribly-written novels is too easy and maybe not something we should be doing. Let us all take the pledge not to consciously bully anyone. Instead, let us recognize that while much self-publishing or fanfiction or etc is terrible, at least a percentage of these authors will likely strive to improve and a percentage of those may become quite good, and a percentage of those may become excellent, ultimately producing a thousand new great authors we might not otherwise have. I am somewhat encouraged by Krista Ball's comment that the same 12-yr-old male trolls she argued with on Readit some years ago have matured into senior teens now arguing on her side for grammar, growth and diversity. So...let's search for the best books, not the worst.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Page and Spine Story

My flash "fiction" (*cough cough*) piece, "The Novice Instructor" is available at Page and Spine in their "Reading Lamp" section.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

First Line Magazine

I thought I would mention a fun market for short story writers, especially if you're blocked. The First Line Literary Magazine is an American market that pays up to $50 and does not charge reader fees. (The one catch is if you want a hard copy of the magazine and you're in Canada, you have to pay $15 for mailing, so if your's is a shorter submission and only earns $15, you might end up having to choose between a copy of the magazine or the $15.)

The two things that make First Line attractive, however, are (1) they're very nice, very professional (e.g., accepted authors are sent proofs before it goes to print so you can see any changes--they caught an embarrassing typo of mine, for example, and made some sensible line edits) and have been around for a long time, so you don't have any worries about dealing with them; and (2) they give you the first line of the story which cannot be altered in any way. That's the whole concept of the magazine. Every story in every issue starts with the same line and it is totally fascinating how different authors' minds take that line in totally different directions. Fun, right! It's a great way to give yourself a little writing exercise by writing a story to that one line, and see what comes out. Some times my regular cast of characters elbow there way into this spontaneous exercise and I suddenly have yet another story in their growing collection. Other times a completely new character /situation comes to mind, and I'm off and running. Either way, it's a break from my WIP and kicks any writer's block you may have to the side. And they are often wicked-good first lines! The sort of first lines you wish you'd thought of.

I've written four stories for the magazine so far: two have been accepted for publication, one is awaiting the submission period for that particular first line (they tell you the year's worth of first lines ahead of time) and one they rejected. I didn't mind getting rejected at all. Because my story was up against hundreds of other stories with the exact same opening! How could you take that personally? (When any magazine rejects your story, it's often because they already have a story for that particular niche, not necessarily that they didn't like your story. With this magazine, it's all that niche!) And, I was able to place that story (with just a very minor change to the opening line) to a different market a couple of weeks later.

As a writing exercise, it's hard to beat, and if they publish your story, you're in pretty good company and its great fun to see how other writers approached the same starting point that you had. It really opens your mind to possibilities.

If you are ever having trouble coming up with ideas or just want a break from your WIP, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020


Every writer should be checking posts on Writer Beware on a regular basis to keep up with all the new scams out there. Here's this week's: Impersonation

A simple rule to follow: don't ever pay anyone anything. Money flows to the writer not to the publisher/agent.

The only exception is that some literary journals charge a $3 submission fee to pay for their submission software. This seems reasonable to me because it would cost about $3 to mail in your manuscript, if anyone still used the mail rather than one of the three or four industry standard submission systems.

Sometimes legitimate contests charge $$ to enter. I have occasionally entered a contest that charged in the $30 range, but only because the submission fee included a subscription to the magazine, which was also around $30, and I actually wanted to subscribe to that magazine. I generally don't go above $5 for contest reading fees otherwise, because the odds of winning are just too low to justify the expense. If you want to give away your money, buy a lottery ticket instead. I never-ever pay $$ for contests that are not associated with a magazine I'm already reading or a charity I support (e.g., I'm happy to pay $5 to enter the Merril Collection SF&F fiction contest). There are a number of contests that charge hefty fees as well as demanding hard copies of your book, but these often appear to be pure scammer. Again, see the post from Writers Beware on contests for details.

Generally, if you're paying someone else, you're being had.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Detailed Review of North by 2000+

Well, it's ten years or so after the book was published, but here's a just released and excellent review of H. A. Hargreaves' North by 2000+, a book I acquired for Five Rivers Publishing and for which I wrote the forward and analytical afterword. (The review says nice things about my essays too.) Hargreaves remains one of my all-time favourite writers and worthy of a much wider audience. He was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame before he passed away, but he remains as relevant today (the reviewer says even more relevant) than ever, and should be required reading for all Canadian SF writers.

The review is by Graeme Cameron (editor of Polar Borealis and a long-time critic and reviewer) and published Feb 7,2020 on Amazing Stories website:

Sunday, January 12, 2020

How Literature Can Shape Our Understanding of Our Life History

I've argued elsewhere that successful stories/novels have to be about more than just characters wandering around doing stuff. A lot of the manuscripts I see crossing my desk have things happening, characters struggling, but which leave me wondering if there was a point to the story.

Horror/fantasy writer, Den Valdron, provides a powerful essay on the opposite: how a story where not much happens had a profound influence on his understanding of his own life history by providing the central metaphor for his lifestory:

"That’s what good writing is, I guess. It’s more than just description and people and things happening to other things. It’s all that, and that’s fine, it’s even great. But really good writing touches who we are, it makes us feel, it makes us see ourselves in it, and see it in ourselves. It shows us things."

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Stock Photos

Most stock photos lack diversity, or worse, stereotype minority representation.

This article does a good job of explaining the problem and listing five examples of stock photo sources with appropriately diverse content: